Orange County

Floods, drought helped define OC

Huntington Beach Pier, 1914 (Orange County Archives).

Huntington Beach Pier, 1914 (Orange County Archives).

By Jim Tortolano

We had a drought most of the year and dire warnings of a shriveled-up, parched land. Then come the predictions of an El Nino winter and much too much water. If it seems like a cycle of dry and wet, it should: that’s been the weather rhythm of Orange County. But the moods of Mother Nature are more than just topics of conversation. There’s been a profound effect on the shaping of the OC, even to today.

In the 21st century, the state of the sky has a big impact on day-to-day life, traffic and business in this conglomeration of cities and communities stretched along the south coast of California. With a lot of the OC’s economy based on tourism and entertainment, a rain day can put a real damper on attendance at amusement parks, beaches, and even outdoor shopping centers.

Garden Grove after the 1916 flood (Orange County Archives).

Garden Grove after the 1916 flood (Orange County Archives).

Moreover, the existence of Orange County stems from a cycle of rain and drought that turned the area from a vast range for grazing cattle into the agricultural powerhouse that spawned the county and served as predecessor to the region we know today.

All of Alta (Upper) California was first part of the Spanish Empire and later the Republic of Mexico. After the American victory in the Mexican War of 1846-48, huge tracts of land were ceded to the U.S., including the area southeast of Los Angeles. That was during the era of the great ranchos, where vaqueros, the original cowboys, managed vast herds of cattle. The region was perfect for that: a generally dry and mild climate, abundant water and wide-open spaces.

But Mother Nature soon had other ideas for what was then the southern wing of Los Angeles County. Abel Stearns, a Yankee trader who came to California in 1828, married into a wealthy local family. He made his move into real estate by approaching second-generation owners of Spanish and Mexican land grants, whose validity was sometimes viewed with skepticism by American courts after the area came under the jurisdiction of the Stars and Stripes.

He bought huge swaths of land at bargain prices, envisioning a lucrative grazing empire on the hoof. But that all came to a sudden reversal of fortune on Christmas Eve in 1861 when the rains came and washed away that dream forever. The downpour was nearly continuous for 30 days and the Santa Ana River overflowed spreading for miles in every direction. Thousands of head of cattle perished, and many of the few buildings in the area (Anaheim was founded in 1857) were either awash or underwater.

The flooding was soon followed by its equally deadly counterpart: drought. That lasted for several years and killed off what remained of the cattle industry. It almost ruined Stearns as well. He ended up selling off his empire for – you guessed it – bargain prices. Stearns sold the rest of his land in 1868 and died three years later.

What followed was the legendary era of agriculture. The surviving big landowners subdivided and sold off much of their holdings, which led to the establishment of new settlements such as Santa Ana (1869), Westminster (1870), Orange (1872) and Garden Grove (1874). All manner of crops were planted, from grapes to lima beans to chili peppers.

For farmers and orchard men, weather was always a worry. In 1884, for example, one of the worst storms in recorded history struck the Santa Ana Valley, doing massive damage to crops.

For those cities that popped up along the OC coast, the construction of piers provided a means of attracting tourists, including anglers and strollers. But those early structures were built of wood, and nature frequently beat them into sticks. Huntington Beach’s pier, for example, was first built in 1902 or 1903, but was destroyed by a winter storm in 1911. A concrete replacement opened in 1914, with additions in 1930-31, but in 1939 another storm came along and chewed off 300 feet of the pier.

Then in 1983, a storm knocked off 500 square feet of decking and superstructure at the end of the pier. Reconstruction was completed in 1985 with a new two-story restaurant, The End Café. But the end came soon for The End, as a storm in 1988 toppled that eatery into the Pacific Ocean, along with 250 feet of the pier.

The entire pier was demolished in 1990-91 and replaced with a new, stronger concrete structure in 1992, at 1853 feet the longest city concrete pier in the U.S.

Inland, floods came regularly in what in 1889 became Orange County. Fullerton was inundated on New Year’s Day 1899.

One of the most significant events in Orange County was the arrival of the railroads. The Pacific Electric line created by Henry Huntington reached Santa Ana in 1903 and came to Garden Grove in 1905. The line created a major boom to the county but also posed a major problem. The railroad rode on raised beds and in 1916, when a huge late winter storm inundated the county both the Santa Ana River and Santiago Creek overflowed.

Much of what is central Orange County flooded, a situation exacerbated by the raised railroad bed, which made the situation worse for those east of the line. Finally, some person or persons unknown dynamited the unintentional dam, and the rail lines were lowered to avoid a repetition of that mishap.

The worst of the flooding problem was alleviated after the construction of Prado Dam in 1941 up near the headwaters of the Santa Ana River, but not before three disastrous weather years. In 1937 a freeze killed about one-fifth of the county’s crops (by now, largely citrus); in 1938 a storm killed 119 people and flooded 68,400 acres of the county. Then in 1939, a heat wave with temperatures up to 108 degrees was followed by high winds and rip tides.

Post-World War II development turned most cropland into suburbs, but the weather still had its moments: in 1949 snow fell on Santa Ana and Garden Grove and probably other communities, too. But from the Fifties on, the greatest environmental dangers were from fire and pollution.

Mother Nature isn’t through with us yet. Climate change might be rewriting the area’s future. One map recently circulated by an oceanographer suggested that rising ocean levels would eventually put most of this area underwater all the way up to the hills of Brea, leaving behind a “Sea of O.C.” Water, water, everywhere. It’s an idea which probably wouldn’t have seemed strange to a cattle rancher in the Santa Ana Valley in 1861.

Sources: Jim Sleeper’s Orange County Almanac, City of Huntington Beach, Garden Grove: A History of the Big Strawberry, Orange County Register, Huntington Beach Independent.



Leave a Reply